Questions all the way home
The natural order is being restored but in what category do we place Chris Froome?
These are the words . . . "Incredible." "Thrilling." "Extraordinary."
. . . the words we used often in the days when we were fans. The words we've used often these past 14 days.
These are the things . . .
"Now that's a bike race."
"It's not over yet."
"What a performance."
"Vive le Tour."
. . . the things we used to say before we were betrayed. The things we wondered if we would ever say again.
What's happening to this sport? What are we looking at here?
Four years ago, during the opening stage of the 2009 Paris-Nice in Amilly, Sean Kelly used a word that few had heard him use before or have heard him use since. The former seven-time champion of the event was sitting in a commentary booth for Eurosport as the stage – a flat and not very technical 9.3km time trial – came to a close and was having trouble digesting the performance of Alberto Contador.
The Spaniard, widely acknowledged as the world's best climber, had just covered the distance seven seconds faster than Bradley Wiggins, the 2008 Olympic pursuit champion. Wiggins, who was racing for Slipstream that year, almost spewed when the time was announced. Kelly doesn't do surprise but succumbed to a blink.
"Unbelievable," he said.
But the little maestro from Madrid was only getting started.
Three months later, he became the Spanish Time Trial champion and a month after that, he crushed the World Time Trial champion, Fabien Cancellera, in the penultimate stage of the Tour de France.
By the spring of 2012, Contador had won ten times against the watch and become a specialist in the event they call the test of truth, but a new truth has emerged since his 2012 suspension for doping: El Pistolero has been firing blanks.
Compare that defeat of Wiggins in 2009 with his performance last Wednesday against the Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel in the 11th stage of the Tour – a 33km time trial from Avranches to Mont St Michel. In 2009, Contador was 19 seconds faster than the Frenchman; on Wednesday, over a much longer distance, he was 38 seconds slower. He also lost a whopping two minutes and 15 seconds to the stage winner, Tony Martin from Germany.
Martin is, of course, the world champion at the discipline and his win highlighted what we have enjoyed most about this Tour – the natural order is being restored. Climbers are soaring in the mountains again and the fat boys are winning TT's. But in what category do we place the race leader, Christopher Froome?
Two weeks ago, the French sports daily L'Equipe painted an interesting portrait of him on the eve of the race. It opened with a scene from a chic hotel in Monaco last October and a chance meeting between Froome and Richard Virenque, a former Tour stage winner and unrepentant cheat. Froome lives in Monaco, and had met the Frenchman at a party being thrown by Alexandre Vinokourov, another wealthy cheat, who had just announced his retirement from the sport.
Froome's fiancée, Michelle Cound, was also invited and observed from a distance as Virenque engaged with her beau.
"Well, what did he say?" she inquired when he returned. "How did you find him?"
"I found that he knows a lot about cycling," Froome replied.
"You mean you don't know who that was?"
"No, who was it?"
"Richard Virenque – the seven-times King of the Mountains at the Tour de France."
Froome explained his unawareness to the writer Alexandre Roos. "I grew up in Africa and didn't know anything about cycling or the history of the sport. It's something I need to brush up on so I read old biographies."
"His naivete is refreshing," his fiancée observed.
She didn't say if he knew who Vinokourov was.
Born in Kenya to British parents, Froome started racing in his mid-teens and competed in his first World Championships at 21 in 2006. A year later, he turned professional with Konika-Minolta, a small South-African team, and in 2008 he joined Barloworld and completed (83rd) his first Tour de France, finishing 31st on Alpe-D'Huez (11 minutes behind Carlos Sastre), 18th in the final TT (three minutes behind Stefan Schumacher) and 83rd overall in Paris.
A year later, he raced well in the Giro D'Italia (36th) and was unveiled by Sky when they announced their new team in January 2010. Five months later, he returned to the Giro D'Italia but was struggling with a knee problem and was disqualified on the 19th stage for holding onto a motorbike on the Mortirolo climb.
"He was trying to get up to the soigneur at the top of the Mortirolo. He knew the Giro was over for him," his manager Sean Yates explained to Cycling Weekly. "Though we would never encourage our riders to hold onto a motorbike."
Confession: I have never interviewed or written about Froome but if I did, this is how the interview would start: Three years ago, Chris Froome was disqualified from the Giro D'Italia for being towed up a climb by a motorbike; 12 months later, his team had still not renewed his contract. Today, he's the stand-out favourite to win the Tour de France and his ambition is to win six more. How does he explain this remarkable transformation?
In a word? Bilharzia, a waterborne parasitic disease transferred by microscopic snails that he contracted while swimming during a visit to his father in Africa. Tired and powerless on the bike, Froome struggled for 18 months until a proper treatment – Biltricide – was found and he was able to compete again.
In 2011, he announced his return with an outstanding second-place finish at the Tour of Spain. A year later, he finished second behind Wiggins in the Tour de France and second in the Olympic time trial. This season, he has won almost every time he has pinned on a number and arrived in Corsica as the stand-out favourite for the Tour.
Last Saturday's eighth stage – 195km from Castres to the Pyrenean ski resort of Ax 3 Domaines – was the first major showdown of the race. On the penultimate climb, Col de Pailheres, Froome sent his team-mates to the front and ordered them to turn the screw. There were 20 riders left when the bunch crossed the summit and it was obvious, from the first slopes of Ax 3 Domines, that most of them were struggling.
The Australian Cadel Evans was first of the favourites to crack, then Andy Schleck and Joaquim Rodriguez. Contador's head was rolling; Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana were out on their feet, and there was no response, five kilometres from the summit, when Froome flicked the turbo. One minute and ten seconds had separated the (ten) favourites that morning when they rolled out of Castres. By Saturday evening, it was 12' 38"
The Tour was over: 'KO Premier Round' screamed the headline in L'Equipe. But the certainty and sense of déjà vu had created a problem for Froome. He had raced up the climb almost as fast as Lance Armstrong; and the following morning, before the start in Saint-Girons, a section of the crowd booed. And then something extraordinary happened.
The second Pyrenean stage from Saint-Girons to Bagneres-de-Bigorre was almost 40km shorter than the day before but crossed three extra summits. The attacks started at the drop of the flag and by the summit of the Col de Mente, after just 44km, Froome's team had completely exploded and left him isolated. Most of the aggression had come from the Garmin-Sharp team of Daniel Martin and as they crossed the valley toward the Col de Peyresourde, Froome sidled over to the Irishman.
"So, what was all that about?" he inquired.
"We just wanted to show everyone that you guys are normal," Martin smiled.
But the questions keep coming for Froome.
Q: Bradley Wiggins is on record as saying that the association with Geert Leinders – or the team's association with Geert Leinders (a Belgian doctor, associated with doping, who spent three years with the team) – was a good thing. What is your position on that? And how angry do you feel, because a lot of the scepticism about your team is built on that association with Leinders?
A: I personally didn't have much contact with Leinders so I can't really comment . . . It's natural that people are going to have questions . . . In cycling, given the history, whenever there have been great performances they have been linked to doping in the past, so naturally now we are bearing the brunt of a lot of those questions. But, personally, I feel the sport has moved on. I know I'm doing the right thing . . . I know how I've got ready for this Tour de France . . . I know the stage I won two days ago . . . that that result will never be stripped. Outside of that, I don't know what else I can do.
Q: When you were asked after your stage win, you said that the sport had changed and that (these questions) should have been asked of people five years ago. Among those is Alberto Contador, and he was asked just now if he had ever taken any products and his answer was that 'you can believe what you want, but I've always raced clean and will continue to do so forever'. Is that a credible answer coming from someone who has tested positive?
A: I don't know what he has done or hasn't done. Yes he has served a ban but I can't comment further on that, I don't know the intricacies of the case . . . I think there do need to be questions asked about performances in the past where guys have been very successful and are no longer at that same kind of level, given that the sport has only cleaned up since then.
What if he's right? What if Froome has started winning because the sport is clean? What if he has just delivered one of the truly great performances? What will it take for us to make that leap of faith again? When will it be safe to embrace some wonder again? And who would we rather see win? A polite, mild-mannered Kenyan trying to sell us a dream? Or a Spanish cheat (take your pick) managed by a Danish cheat (Bjarne Riis) who has screwed us royally before?
What's happening to this sport? What are we looking at here?
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